The Beauty Of A Practitioner’s Conference

When most librarians are asked what most motivates them to attend a library conference, I believe two responses rise to the top of the list: (1) the opportunity to meet with colleagues and (2) acquiring practical information that can be applied on the job. I tend to agree, although I’m not opposed to occasionally spending time in a session where a more theoretical paper or two is being delivered. Those sessions may challenge my assumptions or my ability to stay awake. I actually cannot recall too many library conferences I’ve attended that were primarily a series of research paper presentations. Based on a post by Dean Dad who authors the blog “Confessions of a Community College Dean” over at Inside Higher Education we may be fortunate for this.

Dean Dad, conference blogging from the League for Innovation, writes to share how pleased he is that this conference, like many of our library conferences, is eminently practical. He compares this to his own disciplinary conference, described as “a mechanism for the production and allocation of prestige.” As a community college administrator, this Dean shares his disdain for the elitist atmosphere that pervades the research conference. There he says, “The point of each paper wasn’t really to contribute to a discussion; it was primarily to carve out a niche for the author.”

While practice-oriented programs are great learning opportunities, there certainly is a place for the research conference as well. Academic librarians continue to put the “science” in library science, and there is a need for a forum where that information can be shared. Perhaps another dimension where we differ from our faculty colleagues is in the nature of our research and our conferences. While the faculty identify more strongly with their disciplines, the majority of academic librarians consider themselves members of a professional practice. Library science is not so much our discipline as it is something we learned about in an LIS program. Academic librarians, more so than public or corporate librarians, will identify with the discipline of their subject specialty though I suspect few actually deliver research papers at a disciplinary-focused conference.

There has been a conversation within ACRL about offering a new program track at ALA conferences that would provide an opportunity for the delivery of peer-review research presentations. I thought that’s what ACRL conferences were for, but apparently some academic librarians believe waiting every other year for that opportunity does a disservice to our profession. It depends on how one views the purpose and value of our national conference. Should we be putting more academic library research into the ALA conference to signify the value of our scholarly roots or are we just looking for ways to give tenure-track librarians more options for beefing up their resumes?

I think that if we put the question to Dean Dad he would advise us to preserve the beauty of our practitioner’s conference. There are plenty of existing outlets for the delivery of scholarly research papers and associated presentations. I like the idea of a conference where librarians from all the different sectors of this profession can get together to hear their professional colleagues and keynote speakers share ideas and strategies for improving our libraries. Every other year strikes me as sufficient for research papers to get their chance to be heard.

3 thoughts on “The Beauty Of A Practitioner’s Conference

  1. The only problem with this is that you are assuming a practitioner’s conference is useful for practitioners, which is not necessarily the case. how many times is ALA going to offer a session on “new” reference that includes IM, Meebo, and other virtual reference? We’ve got it, time to move on and decide what *else* we can do – most of us have been using this ‘new’ reference for years. If a theoretical paper might have a practical application that is actually useful, why not make space for it? I would love to go to a practitioner’s conference…but going to see the same old same old on why blogs and wikis are cool, and having someone deign to teach me instant messaging is a complete and utter waste of my time, and of the time of other academic librarians who implement these things on a regular basis.

  2. Research and practice should not exist as separate entities. If we want to improve our profession, those focused on practice should start talking with and listening to those focused on research, and vice versa. Researchers need to hear about the practical issues and concerns in our profession so they can examine research questions that help practitioners make better decisions. Practitioners need to use the research that has been done to guide their decision making and hopefully improve services. Why do we need to segment our conferences? In LIS, much of the research is focused on the practical, so why wouldn’t practitioners want to hear that? We need to reduce the research-practice gap that exists in our profession. Breaking down those barriers via conferences is a place to start. Thinking about research once every two years is simply insufficient.

  3. This is tangentially related, but a research / practice conference that I like is ASIS&T (American Society for Information Science & Technology). It happens every year in the fall and is mostly papers (some doctoral) from folks in LIS education. But it also includes some of us practitioners, and it’s often a nice mix of theory and practice. Kind of like reading a bunch of really thoughtful blog posts about LIS. :-) I like hearing about the theory and can often figure out a way to relate it to my library practice.

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